Observations on a military transition

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No news or links today. Instead I’m going to try to reassure servicemembers about the civilian transition.

When you’re in the military, you constantly hear how tough it is to survive in the civilian world. You’re told that you have to learn the language & customs of a foreign culture, successfully navigate their treacherous combat workplace environment, and somehow figure out what you can do to earn a paycheck. You have to do it full time, and you don’t even earn hazardous duty pay. It’s intimidating, and it’s all too easy to develop an inferiority complex. When you’re in a drawdown and the civilian economy is still trying to shake off a recession, the thought of leaving the service is downright scary.

Maybe you look at Linkedin or talk to other servicemembers who are getting out. Everyone’s obsessed with writing a résumé, networking their contacts, and nailing an interview. You see frightening media headlines about veteran’s unemployment and homelessness.

Yet hundreds of thousands of veterans have managed to leave the military over the last decade, and someday every one of us will have to put away our uniforms. How did they do it? How did they find their civilian job skills, let alone pursue their financial independence?

Believe it or not, some of those civilian job skills came from an unexpected source: the military.

Last Thursday I was carrying out the Hale Nords weekly routine: shopping at Costco. I race around the store with my cart looking for the usual staples: fudgesicles, frozen dinners, protein bars, and soy milk. (Yeah, DeCA, I can buy those at the commissary too, but they’re cheaper at Costco.) Once we’ve stocked up on the “healthy” items, we take home one of their food court pizzas too. Since there’s pizza waiting, I’m usually pretty motivated to get the job done.

As I briskly rounded a corner, intent on my pizza mission, I saw three Costco clerks in their 20s. They were gathered around a pallet of sodas, restocking a shelf. I glanced over each of them as I was scanning the aisle for the next item on my list, but I didn’t really pay much attention to them.

Until one caught my eye. He literally made eye contact with me, nodded his head, and said “Good afternoon, sir.” I said “Afternoon”, nodded smartly, and headed for the next turn. He could see that I didn’t have a question, so he turned his attention back to the pallet while I rounded the corner.

As I was loading my cart, I realized what I’d said. “Afternoon”?!? Now, I’ve lived in Hawaii for over 20 years, and I’ve been retired for 10 of them. I usually say something more informal like “Hey” or “Howzit”, with the chin-lifting up-then-down head bob that seems particular to the islands. I hadn’t handed out an “Afternoon” or a smart head nod since I was in uniform. So why would I respond that way just now?

I thought about it as I headed down the next aisle. Like many 20-somethings in the islands, he had a short haircut that would meet uniform regulations. He was also in shape, with a muscled torso and the heavy shoulders that come from surfing & paddling… and from restocking Costco shelves. But then I realized that he also had an erect bearing that comes from standing with your head up and your back straight. I hadn’t seen any tattoos or facial piercings. Not even an earring. He hadn’t glanced over and said “Hey” or “Howzit” himself– he’d looked up as I went by, made eye contact, squared up, and spoken the kind of greeting that I heard all the time when I was in uniform.

I suspected what had caused my reaction.

I turned around and went back to the group. As I approached, he looked up again to greet another customer and then realized it was me again.

I asked “Excuse me, but by any chance are you a military veteran?”

He said “Yes– how did you know?”

I said “It shows in your bearing and your customer greeting. I think you’re doing a great job. Thank you!”

Of course he had a good handshake, too.

As I walked off, I could see his co-workers giving him the “What was that about?!?” look. He didn’t seem too surprised by what had just happened.

I can get pretty intense when I’m racing through the Costco shopping, and maybe something in my demeanor triggered his reflexes. But I think that he probably does that with every customer he sees, because that’s what you do when you’re working retail. He knows how to make eye contact, offer a greeting, and be ready to help. The difference is that he’d already learned it in the military, not from a Costco manager.

I don’t even know what branch of the military he was in. Maybe I’ll see him again, or maybe never again. But I think that for my next few Costco trips, I’ll carry a copy of “The Military Guide” with me. He might already be working on his financial independence, and he could be the kind of person who’d know what to do with the knowledge.

I had another interesting “Aha!” moment last month about military transitions.

I attended a meeting at a foundation that’s trying to match locals with Hawaii jobs. One of their programs uses state and local corporate funds to run an incubator that trains local high-school grads in various business skills. I happened to be sitting with the CEOs of two startup companies, and each one mentioned that they’re recruiting more sales staff. Ironically each CEO was chasing the same candidates without realizing it, so they decided to share their resources instead of poaching on each other. No problem– each was fine with working together. However, a third CEO overheard our discussion and commented that he hears this issue all the time.

I jokingly suggested to the incubator executive that he needs a course to teach sales skills to high-school grads & business students. The jobs are already waiting; all he needs to do is use the state funding to hire instructors. When I said that, the whole room got quiet. Everybody was fantasizing about a sales school turning out 20-30 trained grads every 3-6 months who could hit the ground running.

Consider what it takes to succeed in sales, which is the civilian equivalent of front-line combat infantry:

      • Patience
      • Listening skills
      • Situational awareness
      • Analyzing problems and possible solutions
      • Learning to use the proper procedures
      • Learning to adapt to unexpected situations and improvise a response
      • Practice
      • Taking care of people
      • Following up
      • Persistence

Nod your head if you feel that the military has helped you develop any of these skills…


Related articles:
Making the leadership transition
The transition to a bridge career
Get on LinkedIn, get a job
Book review: Leaving the military for “The Corner Office”
During retirement: The inevitable job offers

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WHAT I DO: I help you reach financial independence. For free. I retired in 2002 after 20 years in the Navy's submarine force. I wrote "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" to share the stories of over 50 other financially independent servicemembers, veterans, and families. All of my writing revenue is donated to military-friendly charities.

  1. Not only that Nords.. but the military ( Navy) effectively trains salesmen on a daily basis with one of the best sales schools in the world. Recruiting….

    Some of us get to make a decent living based on our military education, organizational skills, crisis management skills, experience and specialized training… sometimes in ways we never would have dreamed of while in the military.

    The transition from military life/discipline to civilian workforce employee IS a transition, but in my personal experience, more a transition into a different lifestyle and truthfully, a different mindset. In all our years of “chain of command”, taking charge, making decisions, and leadership in casualty situations… no one ever taught us that many non-veteran civilians would not understand our mindset or failure to overreact to what they may consider “major”…

    I am enjoying reading Mr. Nordman.. LOL.. Keep it up.

    Following seas.


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